Suzie Miller is an internationally lauded playwright who divides her time between London and Sydney. She honed her storytelling instincts as part of a large, Catholic working-class family in St Kilda. Later, she wrote plays part-time while working as a human rights lawyer. Her best-known plays, which include the acclaimed Prima Facie, soon to be adapted into a film and novel, and RBG: Of Many, One, revolve around people whose lives become ensnared by the workings of power.
Her new play, Jailbaby, currently being staged by Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company, exposes the ways in which society is complicit in the ordeal of prisoners who face sexual abuse. Miller chose to talk about The Far Side of the Moon, a 2000 play by Québécois playwright Robert Lepage, who once mentored her. For Miller, the play is a lesson in the way the stage can hold space for conflicting views.
The Far Side of the Moon follows two brothers – Philippe, an academic, and Andre, a television weatherman – who are drawn together in the wake of their mother’s death. Why did you choose it?
I first saw Robert Lepage’s play in Sydney. There was this incredible humanity about it. [It used] theatrical devices to overlay the text, to reach into a place where it is not a rational experience, it is a purely emotional response. You admire the language so strongly. The direction on top of that is magic realism, the inner world of the character. The two things fuse into the most poignant moment.
At this stage I hadn’t experienced terrible grief, but The Far Side of the Moon makes you empathise with what it is to have that yearning for some sort of physical connection to a person that’s just gone. There’s a whole sequence where he is taking his mother’s clothes to clear out the house. That’s what I ended up doing with my mother years later. He was trying to grasp onto the physicality of her when she is nowhere to be found. He washes the clothes and dries them and tries them on. At some point, there is a fish swimming around in a washing machine.
There are lots of imaginary and soulful personal experiences that are juxtaposed against his brother putting a time line against when they need the property vacated. That is the first part that is quite beautiful. But the overlaying of the dramaturgy of staging was a unique experience for me.
I hadn’t seen theatre as a child. We didn’t have the money or the inclination to go, although my grandmother played piano for silent movies. This was such high-quality theatre. I realised that this is something I would love to make and to meet the man who made it.
Lepage was French Canadian and spent a lot of time in airports because he was such an international star. He is in the airport, thinking about whether she was on the far side of the moon. You know those flip-up seats that you have? He does this physical movement with the seats. There is this mirror behind them and it is like he is walking in space on the mirror. It was just this transformative moment for me – there is this person walking in space trying to find his mother. Even as I am describing it to you, I am still affected by it. Many years later when my mum died, that piece resonated even further, that wanting to grasp onto someone who is no longer there who was beloved.
This idea of trying to find a language for grief in the cosmos is so poignant.
It’s not a religious thing but a desperation for reaching somebody. I know Robert Lepage, being Québécois, grew up with a Catholic background. In fact, years later, I read somewhere that 90 per cent of people in theatre are from either a Catholic or Jewish background.
I very quickly rejected [Catholicism] but during First Communion, I was a believer. You have the incense; the sensory systems are overwhelmed. In a way, it makes it easier to believe in a world that is not true, to be part of the theatre.
Your plays grapple with the experiences of individuals whose lives are bound up in history. The Far Side of the Moon draws on the fight between capitalist America and Soviet Russia to explore the bond between siblings and opposing world views. Do you think about how the play evokes both inner space and outer space?
That idea of identity is really important to me – how you put your identity together when you are not an insider. Obviously, I am white so I am an insider – but a lot of it is masquerading until you become one and then you are not sure you want to be one! It is an interesting duality that you dance for most of your life. To the world, the brother looked like the success story. The other brother was melancholic and longing. And the space race was overlaid on that. The theatre at its best can really interrogate systems and the way your identity is.
When Lepage is climbing through outer space, he has shown us his inner space – and is showing us how much bigger the world is. I’m someone who really enjoys grappling with concepts and ideas. As a playwright, the whole idea of the W-R-I-G-H-T is that you are “wroughting” stories from ideas. In order to personify that conflict, or that knot as I often call it – when you have two versions of a reality – you have to find a story that encompasses it.
What I found with Lepage is the [notion of] the stage as a medium for expressing the inner and the outer, and for polarised views. He showed it in very subtle yet beautiful and layered ways. Through the grief of both those brothers and how they dealt with it in different ways, he grasped onto something very human. I wrote a play about rape, but I wanted to do it in a way that you have so much empathy for someone. She was on one side but is now on the other side. I really hoped to start a conversation of how we reconcile that.
Prima Facie and Jailbaby address the way class barriers shape our trajectories and Lepage once said you can never underestimate the intelligence of someone attending your play. Who do you make work for?
I’d like to think I make work for the whole world but so many people have barriers to going to the theatre. You write for the person who doesn’t see something so you can show it in a way that starts a conversation.
Jailbaby interrogates a different part of the justice system. We take property offences so seriously, often more seriously than we take other offences against the person, and [when I worked in criminal law] I had young men who would go to prison who would tell me about the most horrific sexual abuse they were enduring. They changed in prison. There was no real rehabilitation or assistance in having skill sets for when they left prison. Instead they were tortured in there. This is happening right now.
Part of the new age of terror within democracy is that we feel powerless to know what to do to stop the thing that we don’t like in society. That is a question for the audience: if your place was burgled and that person went to prison, are you prepared for the consequences of what that would be?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 22, 2023 as "Suzie Miller, The Far Side of the Moon, ".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription